Iran Election Watch 2012: Who are the main players?

The March legislative elections, which will determine the composition of the Ninth Islamic Consultative Assembly, will also play a crucial role in shaping the second half of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s last term in office and set the tenor for the 2013 presidential election. As election day quickly approaches, who are the different forces vying for a place and what is the balance of power between them?

Early on, the race was characterized by the emergence of the Seven Plus Eight Committee or Principalist Unity Committee (PUC) which, as its name implies, aimed to unify the major groups operating under the Principalist label into a single list for the upcoming election. The PUC was headed by Assembly of Experts chief Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi-Kani and included representatives from key Principalist figures Such as Ahmadinejad, Majlis chief Ali Larijani, and Tehran mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf. However, Iranians were quickly disabused of any notion of real Principalist unity when a group within the PUC, the Persevering Front of the Islamic Revolution, began agitating on a number of issues and threatened to run on a separate electoral list against the PUC. The Persevering Front, formally led by Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, is composed of a number of ex-ministers and officials from the first Ahmadinejad administration, a group which is also known as the Third of Tir current, a name which recalls the date of Ahmadinejad’s first presidential election victory. As a result, the 2012 election now appears like it will be characterized by the distinctions and rivalries within the Principalist faction.

At least three major issues appear to distinguish the Persevering Front from the PUC. First, the Persevering Front is very supportive of the Ahmadinejad administration and nearly all of its policies. Some of the groups represented by the PUC, in contrast, have been the presidents fiercest critics and have made the first half of his last term in office very difficult. A Persevering Front dominated Majlis could thus be expected to better facilitate the president’s work, while a PUC dominated Majlis would likely continue or increase the current levels of friction between the executive and legislative branches of government.

Second, the Persevering Front has taken a very hard-line against the Reformist faction and Green Movement, and has been vocal in its call for their marginalization. It has also been very critical of other Principalists, such as Larijani and Ghalibaf, which it regards as having turned a blind eye to the “sedition” (the regime’s terminology for the Green Movement) and been silent or even sympathetic toward Reformists and Greens.

Finally, the Persevering Front is staunchly against ex-President Ali-Akbar Rafsanjani, viewing him as having had a malignant influence on the Islamic Republic since its early years and accusing him of having created a corrupt “nobility” within the regime which has lost touch with the ideals of the revolution and the common people. The PUC, while not being particularly pro- or anti-Rafsanjani, nonetheless does contain a number of his key supporters (such as Habibollah Asghar-Owladi). The Persevering Front thus views the PUC as being far too compromising toward the Rafsanjani.

These are just some of the core issues that separate the Persevering Front from the PUC. Of course, these two groups are not the only ones contending for influence in the Majlis. The Reformists, many of whom have called for a boycott of the elections, have been decimated by the crackdown that followed the controversial 2009 presidential elections and those who remain on the political scene are likely to be eliminated via the Guardian Council’s vetting. For all intents and purposes, the Reformist faction has ceased to be an effective force in the mainstream of the Islamic Republic’s politics, at least for the time being.

Another group, calling itself the “Supporters of the Discourse of the Revolution” (SDR), has arisen from within the Ahmadinejad administration and is led by the president’s controversial chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei. This group has been called the “devious current” and has been staunchly opposed by Principalists, including leading figures from Ahmadinejad’s first term, for its nationalist rhetoric and lenient social views. Given the strong pressure which Ahmadinejad received because of his support for Mashaei and the group, they have laid low for the time being. The SDR has however held a number of closed-door sessions with its members and will likely quietly run a number of candidates in the hopes of establishing a foothold in the next Majlis.

Finally a group known as the Critics of the Tenth Administration Front, led by current Majlis figures such as Ali Motahari and Hamid-Reza Katouzian, has attempted to cast itself as the polar opposite of the Persevering Front. This group is harshly critical of the Ahmadinejad administration, conciliatory toward the Reformists and Greens, and has some close ties to Rafsanjani. This group was formed from Principalists who were rejected from the main list of the PUC. Given how late in the elections campaign this group has been formed and its composition it is also unlikely to be a real factor in the elections.

Although the next Majlis will almost certainly be overwhelmingly dominated by the Principalist faction, conflicts within this faction look set to intensify. The Persevering Front, which has close ties with hard-line elements in the regime’s senior leadership (particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and has the backing of the president could do especially well, with important implications for how the next few years in Iran’s politics will look like.